ARGUMENTS FROM BIOLOGY
Question 33: Humans are at the pinnacle of evolution;
doesn't that give them the right to use animals as they wish?
This is one of many arguments that attempt to draw ethical conclusions
from scientific observations. In this case, the science is shaky, and the
ethical conclusion is dubious. Let us first examine the science.
The questioner's view is that evolution has created a linear ranking
general fitness, a ladder if you will, with insects and other "lower"
species at the bottom, and humans (of course!) at the top. This idea
originated as part of a wider, now discredited evolutionary system called
Lamarckism. Charles Darwin's discovery of natural selection overturned
this system. Darwin's picture, instead, is of a "radiating bush"
species, with each evolving to adapt more closely to its environment,
along its own radius. Under this view, the idea of a pinnacle becomes
unclear: yes, humans have adapted well to their niche (though many would
dispute this, asserting the nonsustainable nature of our use of the
planet's resources), but so have bacteria adapted well to their niche.
we really say that humans are better adapted to their niche than bacteria,
and would it mean anything when the niches are so different?
Probably, what the questioner has in mind in using the word "pinnacle"
is that humans excel in some particular trait, and that a scale can be
created relative to this trait. For example, on a scale of mental
capability, humans stand well above bacteria. But a different choice of
traits can lead to very different results. Bacteria stand "at the
pinnacle" when one looks at reproductive fecundity. Birds stand "at
the pinnacle" when one looks at flight.
Now let us examine the ethics. Leaving aside the dubious idea of a
pinnacle of evolution, let us accept that humans are ranked at the top
a scale of intelligence. Does this give us the right to do as we please
with animals, simply on account of their being less brainy? If we say yes,
we open a Pandora's box of problems for ourselves. Does this mean that
more intelligent humans can also exploit less intelligent humans as they
wish (shall we all be slaves to the Einsteins of the world)? Considering
a different trait, can the physically superior abuse the weak? Only a
morally callous person would agree with this general principle.
see also question 34, 37
Question 34: Humans are at the top of the
food chain; aren't they therefore justified in killing and eating anything?
No; otherwise, potential cannibals in our society could claim the same
defense for their practice. That we can do something does not mean that
is right to do so. We have a lot of power over other creatures, but with
great powers come even greater responsibilities, as any parent will
Humans are at the top of the food chain because they CHOOSE to eat
nonhuman animals. There is thus a suggestion of tautology in the
questioner's position. If we chose not to eat animals, we would not be
at the top of the food chain.
The idea that superiority in a trait confers rights over the inferior is
disposed of in question #33.
see also question 33
Question 35: Animals are just machines; why worry
Centuries ago, the philosopher Rene Descartes developed the idea
all nonhuman animals are automatons that cannot feel pain. Followers of
Descartes believed that if an animal cried out this was just a reflex,
the sort of reaction one might get from a mechanical doll. Consequently,
they saw no reason not to experiment on animals without anesthetics.
Horrified observers were admonished to pay no attention to the screams
of the animal subjects.
This idea is now refuted by modern science. Animals are no more "mere
machines" than are human beings. Everything science has learned about
other species points out the biological similarities between humans and
nonhumans. As Charles Darwin wrote, the differences between humans and
other animals are differences of degree, not differences of kind. Since
both humans and nonhumans evolved over millions of years and share
similar nervous systems and other organs, there is no reason to think
we do not share a similar mental and emotional life with other animal
species (especially mammals).
Question 36: In Nature, animals kill and eat each
other; so why should it be wrong for humans?
Predatory animals must kill to eat. Humans, in contrast, have a
they need not eat meat to survive. Humans differ from nonhuman animals
in being capable of conceiving of, and acting in accordance with, a system
of morals; therefore, we cannot seek moral guidance or precedent from nonhuman
animals. The AR philosophy asserts that it is just as wrong for a human
to kill and eat a sentient nonhuman as it is to kill and eat a sentient
To demonstrate the absurdity of seeking moral precedents from nonhuman
animals, consider the following variants of the question:
"In Nature, animals steal food from each other; so why should it
wrong for humans [to steal]?"
"In Nature, animals kill and eat humans; so why should it be wrong
humans [to kill and eat humans]?"
see also question 23, 34, 64
Question 37: Natural selection and Darwinism
are at work in the world; doesn't that mean it's unrealistic to try to
overcome such forces?
Assuming that Animal Rights concepts somehow clash with Darwinian
the questioner must stand accused of selective moral fatalism: our sense
morality is clearly not modeled on the laws of natural selection. Why,
then, feel helpless before some of its effects and not before others?
Male-dominance, xenophobia, and war-mongering are present in many human
societies. Should we venture that some mysterious, universal forces must
at work behind them, and that all attempts at quelling such tendencies
be abandoned? Or, more directly, when people become sick, do we abandon
them because "survival of the fittest" demands it? We do not
abandon them; and we do not agonize about trying to overcome natural selection.
There is no reason to believe that the practical implications of the Animal
Rights philosophy are maladaptive for humans. On the contrary, and for
reasons explained elsewhere in this FAQ, respecting the rights of animals
would yield beneficial side-effects for humans, such as more-sustainable
agricultural practices, and better environmental and health-care policies.
The advent of Darwinism led to a substitution of the idea of individual
organisms for the old idea of immutable species. The moral individualism
implied by AR philosophy substitutes the idea that organisms should be
treated according to their individual capacities for the (old) idea that
is the species of the animal that counts. Thus, moral individualism actually
fits well with evolutionary theory.
see also question 63-62
Question 38: Isn't AR opposed to environmental
philosophy (as described, for example, in "Deep Ecology")?
No. It should be clear from many of the answers included in this
from perusal of many of the books referenced in question 92, that the
philosophy and goals of AR are complementary to the goals of the mainstream
environmental movement. Michael W. Fox sees AR and environmentalism as
two aspects of a dialectic that reconciles concerns for the rights of
individuals (human and nonhuman) with concerns for the integrity of the
Some argue that a morality based on individual rights is necessarily
opposed to one based on holistic environmental views, e.g., the sanctity
of the biosphere. However, an environmental ethic that attributes some
form of rights to all individuals, including inanimate ones, can be
developed. Such an ethic, by showing respect for the individuals that make
up the biosphere, would also show respect for the biosphere as a whole,
achieving the aims of holistic environmentalism. It is clear that a rights
view is not necessarily in conflict with a holistic view.
In reference to the concept of deep ecology and the claim that it bears
negatively on AR, Fox believes such claims to be unfounded. The following
text is excerpted from "Inhumane Society", by Michael W. Fox.
Deep ecologists support the philosophy of preserving the natural
abundance and diversity of plants and animals in natural ecosystems...
The deep ecologists should oppose the industrialized, nonsubsistence
exploitation of wildlife because...it is fundamentally unsound ecologically,
because by favoring some species over others, population imbalances and
extinctions of undesired species would be inevitable.
In their book "Deep Ecology", authors Bill Devall and George
take to task animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, who with others of like
mind "expressed concern that a holistic ecological ethic...results
kind of totalitarianism or ecological fascism"...In an appendix, however,
George Sessions does suggest that philosophers need to work toward
nontotalitarian solutions...and that "in all likelihood, this will
some kind of holistic ecological ethic in which the integrity of all
individuals (human and nonhuman) is respected".
Ironically, while the authors are so critical of the animal rights
movement, they quote Arne Naess (...arguably the founder of the deep
ecology movement)...For instance, Naess states: "The intuition of
biocentric equality is that all things in the biosphere have an equal
right to live and blossom and to reach their own forms of unfolding and
Michael W. Fox (Vice President of HSUS)
see also question 28, 59